No matter how much experience they log playing minors or how gracefully they seem to leapfrog over those roles into adulthood, young actors always seem to find one more chance to revisit their teenage years. Very Good Girls, for example, stars Elizabeth Olsen (age 25) and Dakota Fanning (age 20) as a pair of best friends who have just graduated high school, and want to lose their respective virginities before heading off to college in the fall. The casting isn’t all together unconvincing: Olsen and Fanning’s collective ability to project intelligence beyond their years works both ways, allowing them to play both precocious youths and youthful adults. But Very Good Girls catches them in between those stages, and the effect isn’t evocative so much as muddled.
The movie begins at a beach in Brooklyn where, after an abbreviated session of skinny-dipping (the result of a mutual dare), Lilly (Fanning) and Gerry (Olsen) meet David (Boyd Holbrook), a surly ice cream vendor on the boardwalk. They both take to him: Gerry with a gawky version of aggression, and Lilly so quietly that Gerry barely seems to notice that they’re sharing a summer crush. The taciturn, unsmiling, mysterious, and entirely uninteresting David makes sense as a crush object—which doesn’t exactly justify the movie’s decision to make him its de facto romantic lead. At his most engaged, David seems, at best, half-interested in one of the girls, maybe because Holbrook acts as a discount Ryan Gosling—all the mumbling and silence at just 20 percent of the charisma. It’s hard to invest much in the character (or understand why Lilly and Gerry do) when his face and sometimes even his mouth say “I’m outta here.”
Writer-director Naomi Foner, a longtime screenwriter and also the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, tries to connect the girls’ infatuations to their home lives. She has a feel for Gerry’s parents (Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore), roughing out their over-sharing, smart-mouthed semi-bohemia in just a few brief conversations. The scenes with Lilly and her psychiatrist parents (Ellen Barkin and Clark Gregg, the latter the patron saint of well-meaning, sadly overmatched fathers everywhere) are clumsier, doing less with more. Throughout the film and especially in the scenes of family conflict, Foner’s camera slowly and dramatically pushes in on Fanning’s face, as if it’s conveying all of the hurt and conflict in the world. Most of the time, though, she’s just staring.
Other visual choices in the film work better. Ultra-faded cinematography washes the sky (and sometimes the actresses’ skin) out to whiteness, and Foner uses less typical New York City locations like the Kensington area of Brooklyn, the ferry docks of Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to give the city the look of a languid summer camp. But Very Good Girls betrays that laid-back vibe by making every story turn feel designed for maximum effect on the girls’ relationships with David. The screenplay doesn’t just serve the movie’s themes about young female friendship and loss of innocence; it’s subservient to them.
The best moments are throwaways that have some room to breathe, like Olsen shyly plucking at her guitar during an open-mic performance, unable to take her eyes off the frets. (The song is actually an old Rilo Kiley tune; Rilo’s Jenny Lewis wrote the score and some new songs for the film). Another tiny highlight comes later: When Lilly’s vaguely lecherous boss (Peter Sarsgaard) is about to hook up with a woman out of his league, he pauses to note that he needs a haircut. This quick, almost involuntary admission of his ill-preparedness hints that how the girls feel about their lives may not fade with age. If the rest of Very Good Girls maintained this level of sweet awkwardness, Lilly and Gerry might have been more affecting characters—instead of seeming, most of the time, old enough to know better.